Friday, April 15, 2011

The Silent Majority Speaks

The silent majority has spoken up in today's DE, providing me with an easy cheap-shot illustration. 

Nixon famously used the phrase "the silent majority"of those who supported the war in Vietnam which he, of course, was earnestly attempting to bring to an end. Now there was a leader one could trust! But back to events more contemporary.

The DE letter was signed (online) by many faculty members I know and respect. This of course doesn't stop me from disagreeing with them. Here are their main arguments as I see them, and some counterarguments.

  1. Faculty should join others in sacrificing for the good of the university. The FA is not arguing that Faculty alone should be exempt from furlough days, but rather that furlough days ought not to be required of any employees (most of whom, of course, make rather less money than tenured or tenure-track faculty, and thus can less afford to lose days of pay). The FA has tried to argue, based on publicly available data about the budget--most obviously the $15.8 million surplus last year--that SIUC is in sound fiscal shape. Despite the state's budgetary woes, prior cuts at SIUC have more than made up for somewhat smaller than expected increases in tuition revenues and the loss of federal stimulus money. This isn't a case of "shared sacrifice", it's a case of the administration deciding that paying its employees their full salary isn't as high a priority as ensuring that $2.6 million are available for other purposes.
  2. The FA is divisive. Well, democracy, and shared governance, are going to include disagreements. The "silent majority", by speaking up, are of course contributing to the divisive debate--which is their right. The problem isn't debate, but rather when one side in a debate denies the other a voice. That is what the administration has done by cutting off negotiations with campus unions and resorting to imposing its own terms on us.
  3. We should trust the administration to do what is right. This argument will obviously appeal only to one with little interest in shared governance of any sort. But let me add that my own disagreements with the administration are not based on distrust (for the most part), but rather on my trust that their vision for this place differs from mine, and that mine, of course, is better. In a nutshell: they mistake quantative means, various measures of "efficiency" or "performance" adapted from the corporate world, for our largely qualitative end: learning--our students learning and our own. Hence their emphasis is continually on producing more: more credit hours, more degrees, more majors, more grants, and on doing so more efficiently. Trying to do more with less tends to undermine quality. See Ryan's wonderful post on this.
  4. The FA should poll all faculty. This is a rather ironic argument coming from the "silent majority," who have not, to the best of my knowledge, taken a poll themselves in order to adopt that moniker. I also find it a bit paradoxical that faculty members calling for unity and trust in the administration desire, at least on this one occasion, to transform SIUC into something more like a direct democracy. Should we also vote on the basketball coach's salary? The Chancellor's salary? (I did, actually, come to think of it, vote for her salary with my feet, by attending the BOT meeting at which one trustee questioned whether SIUC could afford to hire a new Chancellor at the market rate, and applauding speakers who supported hiring her at that rate. I would have hoped that the new Chancellor would similarly support faculty.) The FA, at any rate, is a representative democracy. Thanks to the administration's divisive insistence that this campus not adopt "fair share"--not require all faculty to pay for being represented by the faculty association--the FA is a representative democracy of a rather complex sort. Only dues-paying members get to vote for union officials and for the departmental representatives who are in charge of bargaining. But any dues-paying member who is interested can play a large role in the FA, which, like most democratic bodies on campus, does not suffer from an over-supply of faculty interested in volunteering to serve. The FA's Departmental Representatives Council did vote on the administration's proposal, and unanimously rejected it (by unanimously supporting the bargaining team's position). Submitting every administration proposal (or ultimatum) to the full membership would be impractical and imprudent. Our volunteer bargaining team knows the issues, and has spent hours discussing them; we are not going to allow the administration to pull an end run by submitting any proposal they choose to a faculty poll. But of course all faculty (members and non-members alike) are welcome to have their voices heard--as the silent majority has done. And the most important decisions--whether to accept a contract agreement the bargaining team has bargained to (rather than one the administration has imposed), or, should it come to that, to go on strike, would be submitted to a vote by all members--though only members. If you want a vote, you need to join (and if you think everyone should have a vote, you need to support "fair share").
I am glad, as a matter of fact, that the silent majority has spoken. This allows us to dissect their arguments as they would dissect those of the FA. And my most fundamental interest in all of this stuff, after all, is ensuring that faculty play a major role in running this place. The more faculty voices the better, then, it seems to me: so long as the silent majority doesn't think faculty need to just keep silent and do as we're told, they are more than welcome in my book, especially if they continue to channel Richard Nixon.


  1. Ironic isn't it ?

  2. Well, the origin of the comment, it seems, was the AFL-CIO!

    See the following from the Wikipedia entry "Silent Majority" -- with a link to to fn. 13 taking you to the Google book page as verification.

    "In 1967, labor leader George Meany asserted that those labor unionists (such as himself) who supported the Vietnam War were "the vast, silent majority in the nation."[11][12] Meany's statement may have provided Nixon's speechwriters with the specific turn of phrase.[13]

  3. True enough--I also did my extensive research on the quote via Wikipedia, which noted that while Meany may have inspired Nixon, it was Nixon who immortalized it. Nixon's 1969 Silent Majority speech is a very powerful piece of rhetoric and was apparently successful in rallying support. And he won the 1972 election by a landslide, thus vindicating his claim of majority support, though he subsequently ran into certain difficulties.

    I suppose the phrase is most problematic because it conjures into being a group whose existence can't readily be identified--precisely because they are silent. I suppose opinion polls, assuming the silent majority is wiling to speak to pollsters, could detect whether there is a silent majority out there. Even so, isn't there something a bit curious about why such majorities stay silent? Why not speak up?--especially if you are in the majority and are supporting the powers that be? And perhaps especially if you are a tenured professor who presumably doesn't believe that the administration plans to undermine tenure--or do you?

    Are there liberal silent majorities? If not, is this due to any deeper reason than the Nixonian connotations of the phrase? I'm thinking there is something inherently conservative in the phrase.

    At any rate, my suspicion is that those who use the phrase may be engaged in wishful thinking about their level of support. Or at the least that said support is wider than it is deep. Certainly, to my ear (which was all of three years old in 1969!), the phrase still carries "the opprobrium generally accorded to Nixon-Agnew utterances" (Safire on this term in his Political Dictionary).

  4. "Even so, isn't there something a bit curious about why such majorities stay silent? Why not speak up?"

    Ha! That could be said of many issues on campus. Fear, intimidation (from administration or faculty). The rule of oligarchy....A "chilling effect" when there is a visible action taken against a single person who does speak up. Fear of not securing tenure. The list is long.

    Moreover, in this case, the purported majority is in no position to vote because it is not part of the voting body (FA). How many faculty belong to FA? A majority? I doubt it. I'd love to know but I doubt the FA will inform us!

  5. Sure, there some departments where being anti-union would put you in a minority position and could produce a "chilling effect". Union faculty who discriminate against non-union faculty are as much to blame as when discrimination goes the other way (though in my experience the overwhelming majority on both sides manage to maintain collegial relationships, and professional standards, with those on the other).

    But as you note, many faculty don't belong to the FA--my understanding is that rather fewer than half are dues-paying members. (Lots of issues there, from high principles to low free riding.) So does a vocal minority chill the speech of the silent majority? Are the vocal minority an oligarchy of sorts? If only! It's not like the Blathering Minority was able to, say, stop Saluki Way, prevent furloughs, etc.

    Ultimately, one reason I'm engaging in this form of logorrhea is because I think tenure gives me not only the right to speak up without fear of retaliation, but a certain responsibility to do so. Why tenure faculty if they won't, even with tenure, be bold enough to speak their minds? All the more reason to be worried about the administration's layoff procedure, which undermines tenure.

    At any rate, congratulations on not being fully chilled, even if you are anonymous.

  6. Frankly, most faculty I know are spineless -- they say nothing to get tenure and therefore don't deserve it when they secure said "academic freedom." You may be the exception but the junior faculty I've heard utter "I'm not saying anything controversial until I get tenure." Then when they get it (after x years in grad school + y years as junior faculty), they don't have much to say. ; - )

    Or, as an old professor said: "those who keep their mouths shut to obtain tenure don't deserve it!"


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